Monday, August 18, 2008

Destroy to Create

Word from Current is that Pandora, the "Internet radio service that allows listeners to customize musical selections to their own tastes", is about to die, fiscally. The article says it's chiefly because of incredibly unreasonable licensing fee structures the music labels have set up, and refuse to back down from.

The tone of the article is that, while it'd be sad to see Pandora go away, it might be for the "greater good". In the sense that, in order for the "big, bad, archaic music labels" to ultimately die, every possible revenue source for them must be destroyed first in order to choke them into submission.

I often espouse the "creation through destruction" manifesto...the Tyler Durden Eight Rules About Life, if you will. But here I fear that while it may be the only strategy, it is still a failing one.

I say that because, if I may speak bluntly, many music labels are cockroaches. They're impossible to kill. They're run by soulless, slimy bastards who know that there will always be some wide-eyed doe of a musician willing to sign their life away for peanuts in a deal that makes the label rich and screws everyone else. The music industry seems to attract these kind of people like rats to garbage. Actually that's unfair, the media industry as a whole seems to attract those people. Lord knows I've dealt with quite a few of them in various jobs I've had working in radio, and I've been lucky to only have to deal with a few since I'm mostly on the college/non-commercial side of things. The lessor dollar amounts inherent to this side of radio tends to mitigate the sliminess somewhat.

If you're of the industry and offended by what I'm writing, I say that by no means has everyone I've worked with been a soulless slimy bastard. And I'm not going to say here who I think was one. If you can't handle the potential of accusation, you either don't know me very well or perhaps you need to re-examine your career choice. ;-)

Getting back on topic, the music labels seem determined to pursue a self-destructive model of royalties. A model that guarantees their eventual destruction through alienation of every other participant in the process. A model that maximizes what little short-term gain can be had...and it's not the expense of potentially (and likely) destroying everything in the long term.

But it will be a long, slow and painful death match to that "long term", my friends. These are people who have made a living out of cheating, lying and general scumbaggery for at least forty years. They will learn how to eat their young for a long time before the inevitable finally occurs.

So don't hold your breath thinking that Pandora's death will bring change anytime soon. It will have to get much, much worse before that happens. And it's a damn shame.


Tom Wilson said...

Aaron, as a musician, I couldn't agree with you more. The whole system is rotten from the inside out, and what's more - it's no longer necessary!

I was part of a band a few years ago that wrote, produced, and marketed an album that was as good (in terms of technical quality) as anything you'd find in a record store. We did the entire project in a local producer's garage studio. I think the entire project, including studio time and CD reproduction, cost a couple thousand dollars.

And that was with physical CD's, before MP3's and iTunes made music production even cheaper and easier.

Aaron, as a musician, I couldn't agree with you more. The whole system is rotten from the inside out, and what's more - it's no longer necessary!

I think the time for the independent artist has come. Artists should be free to set their own royalty rates and choose to be able to charge or not for radio play. What amazes me is that under the new royaty terms, artists can't even choose not to accept money for their work. So even if I wanted to donate my music to a radio station in exchange for publicity, the station is still compelled to pay the royalties to the music mafia.

Record companies served a purpose 50 years ago. Without them, we wouldn't have had Elvis or Chuck Berry, but the 3 jobs that they performed then are now almost obsolete:
1. Record companies have the technical ability to master and reproduce records. We can't forget that this is the second most important aspect of music production (marketing is the first in their eyes, since marketing=money)
2. They can distribute the records to the necessary outlets
3. They can market the product. Let's not forget that the "product" is a flesh and blood person, albeit one who is now merely a small part of the giant organization that is a music franchise. (Do you really think Britney could put out an album completely on her own?)

But what happens when these pillars break down? I can produce an album in my bedroom with a rig that costs less than my car. I can distribute it through iTunes for practically nothing. Furthermore, sites like YouTube make even the marketing free! What happens when the things that were in short supply 50 years ago are now abundant. For the cost of a $20 Internet connection (and lots of time), I could market a record to an audience of millions. I'm frequently reading about bands or solo artists who are finding new ways to produce and market their media.

So how are the record companies staying in business? What's their new strategy? It's the Duff formula. Take a teenage nobody, cast her in a TV show, and hope that 9-14 year old girls buy a ton of her stuff because they want to be just like her. That seems to be where the future of music is: cross-media marketing, with tie-ins to every market that children consume: television, music sales, clothing, toys, video games, and even school supplies.

For every American Idol star, there are a hundred or a thousand people out there with genuine talent who are working their tails off to make it the old fashioned way: skill and hard work. Eventually, the roaches will get squished, and we'll have a bifurcated music industry, with one branch pushing the 5 or so big stars and the other branch full of thousands of indie artists, all making their money directly from the consumers - without being filtered through hundreds of hands along the way.

But it will take a time of serious change, pain, and heartache before that happens. During that time, expect to see a lot of damage done to the radio biz, because it will be ugly.

Tom Wilson said...

whoah... that was odd. I thought I'd cut out the first 3 paragraphs entirely. :)

Aaron Read said...

As a manager of a radio station, I can you it's worse that than. The rights-management agencies ASCAP, BMI and SESAC...along with SoundExchange...have laws that effectively allow them to shake down radio stations for royalty fees without ANY real basis or proof that artists they represent were aired on our station.

It's called compulsory licensing. What I call it not polite for public company. :-/

Tom Wilson said...

This is what happens when we elect people who've gotten to office on campaigns funded by the public and who basically have no expertiese in the field they're passing laws about.

They end up in the pockets of whatever special interest put them there.

Congress seems to be slowly losing its mind when it comes to copyright law. Copyright Czar? DMCA? Criminal prosecution for minor copyright violations? It's getting crazy.